Character Designs and Femininity
When the first images from the new She-Ra dropped there was a small internet freak out.
The primary complaints were that the original She-Ra was a “symbol of womanhood”, and upheld an idealized example of femininity while the new She-Ra did not. These complaints were made before the show came out, after only looking at a handful of images. It was primarily men online who were upset about the new designs. These men were arguing that they weren’t upset because they no longer found She-Ra hot, it’s because they were worried about little girls no longer having a feminine role-model to look up to and that they felt the new She-Ra wasn’t embodying the values of the original.
The idea that old She-Ra was all things feminine isn’t canon to the original character. She embodied a lot of traditionally stereotypical masculine and feminine traits. She was a fighter, physically strong, could be aggressive, and would do things like rescuing male characters. Which aren’t considered sterotypically feminine activities when looking at traditional gender expectations.
The new She-Ra is similar in this regard. Whether or not you think She-Ra needs to embody femininity to be a good show, she actually does hit the mark on a lot of stereotypical traditional female traits. She is empathetic, caring, nurturing, and compassionate. The reality is that these complaints were made after only seeing an image. The idea that She-Ra wasn’t womanly enough was entirely based on her physical appearance.
And this is a problem. It implies that what male viewers think embodies femininity and womanhood in female characters is their body. And the way their body is displayed.
So, what makes a good female character design? Does an animated woman have to have a certain body shape to be considered womanly enough? How does that reflect on actual women?
Boobs and Bodies
What a lot of complaints actually came down to is the assumption that an animated character’s chest should look a certain way to be natural or womanly. In redesigns from people who disliked the new characters the primary change you would see made was a slight clinching of the waist of the characters and padding out of their chests.
Obviously, actual women come in all different shapes. These photos taken by Howard Shatz are a really wonderful example of how incredibly diverse the female form is, even when looking at the narrow category of just athletes. Despite all being incredibly fit, these 28 female athletes all have very different body types.
In animation, there is a history of women having much less varied physical designs than male characters. But in real life, women, like men, come in all different shapes and sizes.
It might seems strange to ask what kind of bra a fictional female character is wearing; but its not as if what shape the characters breasts are is not already a choice being made (click for a bit of a laugh). In the design process, there should be conscious choices made about about what clothing the character wears, and how that effects what the character’s form looks like.
In the original She-Ra there is very little variety in design. In real life, women have all different body types, breast sizes, and wear all different types of bras.
The other things is that people wear clothing. And clothing changes how much of their body you can see and what shape their body looks like. Below is an image of a woman with a similar body shape to the original She-Ra characters, but in order to have this form visible, she isn’t actually wearing clothing. She is wearing only shapeware with underwire.
In the old She-Ra, all different characters with all different styles of outfits have the same visibility of their chest. Perhaps, the worst (or best) example of this is Shadow Weaver.
Shadow Weaver’s cloak dress appears to be a heavy fabric bag of a dress with no bodice or darts. The fabric would never lay like this across an actual person. The choice to have her outfit defy natural laws is entirely so that we can see her boobs.
Here is what a similar style outfit in a stiff linen and a more clinging silk actually looks like (there is very little body definition):
Adora (not transformed) is an incredibly athletic character who underwent military-style training from a young age. I don’t know what underwear options are like for Horde soldiers, but it would make sense for a character like this to wear a comfortable style bra for strenuous activity.
Let’s say you wanted to design an active female character who, like many really women, regularly wears a sports bra. What would her body look like? Well let’s take a look at how wearing a sports bra affects your appearance:
This video was made in response to the complaint that female athletes in the 2012 Olympics don’t look womanly enough. And this should sound familiar, because at its heart it is the same complaint that was lobbied at the new She-Ra design.
The argument was that athletes looked “too much like boys” and that it was degrading womanhood. That scoring a female athlete should take into account their physical appearance. Implying that women who don’t have large, defined breasts aren’t “real” women.
This is the kind of standard that women face as the background sound track of their life. Literal Olympic athletes might not be considered a good role-model for girls if they also don’t look sufficiently attractive enough (by random guys personal opinion of what they find attractive). Clearly, most people don’t think like this. But, these complaints about the She-Ra character aren’t new, they are the kind of complaints men have been making about actual women for a long time.
Animated women, like real women, should have all different body types and wear different styles of bras. Even if you had four women standing next to each other who had identically body types, they would all look totally different based on the clothing and bra they were wearing.
It’s also okay to have the character’s form look different depending on the outfit. That’s how real bodies work.
In the new She-Ra, women’s bodies move like real women’s bodies do. How visible their breasts are depends on things like: how their standing, their body type, the type of clothing their wearing and the camera angle. It is really refreshing, realistic, and very uncommon for female characters.
Here is an example of model Rain Dove wearing two different outfits:
The reality is that the original show’s character designs weren’t based on an authentic idea of what outfits and body shapes best represented the characters. It was designed to sell toys to kids. The reason all the male characters have similar body types, and all the female characters have similar hair lengths and body types, is this make manufacturing toys a lot easier. The new She-Ra show had a lot more freedom to reimagine the characters because they weren’t creatively tied down by having to use the cartoon as an advertisement for new products like the original was.
The complaints that the new characters are somehow degrading womanhood are silly and sad. It isn’t an attack on femininity to have female characters dress in different styles and have different body types.
The clothing you wear doesn’t make you less of a woman, and neither does the shape of your body. If femininity is a part of womanhood, then it shouldn’t be something we have to perform, and it shouldn’t be based on how much of an hourglass our figure is. The new She-Ra does an incredible job of having a wide variety of different female character designs.
There are so many different ways to live your life as a woman, and the new She-Ra had a group of creative women who helped design the dynamic cast of the new show which celebrates womanhood in all its forms.